“Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before,” says medievalist. “We take solace in looking ahead.”


From the Consul-General of France in San Francisco…


The Notre Dame has been saved, though the repair work is predicted to take decades.

President Emmanuel Macron apparently wants it tout de suite, in time for the Paris Olympic in 2024. Guess he has a learning curve ahead of him. French officials quickly declared it was a renovation mishap – even while the flames were still leaping over Paris. They all but ruled out arson completely. This is strange, because attacks on French churches (as well as Jewish and Muslim sites, to a lesser extent) have been rampant of late – hundreds vandalized or desecrated in the last year alone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a disgruntled teenager with a box of matches or a vast terrorist conspiracy, the millions for restoration will be money wasted if there’s no attempt to confront the causes. Let’s hope the officials know something we don’t – for example, other issues with lax precautions during the renovations. Let’s also hope they’re not looking for a scapegoat.


To some extent, the Notre Dame is a fiction of antiquity – we addressed that yesterday with Sara Uckelman’s heartening comments. Book Haven friend and medievalist Jeff Sypeck wrote on the same topic yesterday in his blog Quid Plura yesterday: “Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before.” The spire that fell, for example, is not medieval. It was added in the 19th century. The cathedral been in dilapidated shape before: a 1840 daguerrotype shows “the great cathedral appears as a disintegrating patchwork pile,” according to author Michael Camille.

“The best known 19th-century additions to Notre-Dame are probably the 54 gargoyle-like creatures known as ‘chimeras,’ the most famous being ‘le Stryge,’ the bitter critter on the cover of Camille’s book. Within a few years, artists, photographers, and postcard-sellers were treating these new grotesques not as recent decorations meant to ‘look medieval,’ but as ancient survivors, timeless objects of melancholic contemplation, as if Notre-Dame had witnessed the centuries but had, through some miracle, remained untouched by them,” Sypeck writes.

Later additions … much later …

“When tourists at Notre-Dame in 2100 hear about the devastating fire of 2019, they won’t comprehend it. Even if docents point out a scorched pillar or emphasize the relative newness of the roof, visitors will know in their bones that they’re standing in a sacred place that hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages, as most tourists felt before yesterday’s fire. They’ll rightly look backwards, blind to the fire and smoke; so we now take solace in looking ahead.”

A Google search turned up Dwight Longenecker, who offered some orientation for those among us who were confused by exactly what happened:  “This is down to the way the church is designed. The whole building, except for the roof is constructed from stone. The ceiling of the nave is a vault designed by interlocking arches all built from stone. This acts like a cap covering the nave. To protect the vaulting, on top of that is the comparatively lightweight wooden roof structure which is invisible to anyone in the interior. It is this wooden roof which went up in flames, and the fire apparently started there in what is essentially attic space.

“If a fire started at floor level it could have gutted the interior, but it would have been almost impossible for the flames to reach the height of the roof beams, and even if the fire went that high it would have to burn through the stone vault to reach the roof beams.

“This design element explains why most of the interior was spared and why the restoration will not be that long or that expensive. They will have to repair the damage to the vault where, I believe the central spire crashed through the stone vaulting, and they will have to design and build a new roof, at least that’s how it looks this morning.”

In 1840: “a disintegrating patchwork pile”

Rolling Stone quoted Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of art history at Harvard University whose research focuses on the art of the High and later Middle Ages: “The fact that the building did not collapse — a concern in the hours immediately following the blaze — serves as a ‘powerful testimony to the skill of medieval builders,’ Hamburger says. He credits the survival of the structure to the building’s iconic rib vaulting and flying buttresses, which prevented collapse. ‘It’s worth remembering why they went through the trouble building it this way — it wasn’t for aesthetic reasons, it was for fire-proofing,’ Hamburger says. ‘In a way, what we have here is proof of concept.’”

Other observations from around the web:

Douglas Murray writing “The Notre Dame’s Loss is Too Much to Bear” in The Spectator: “There will be recriminations, of course. There will be disputes about budgets, and overtime and safety standards and much more. It is worth reading this piece from two years ago about the funding problems that existed around the cathedral’s restoration. But if Notre Dame can burn then all this is as nothing, because it tells us something too deep to bear. As I said a couple of years ago in a book, in some ways the future of civilisation in Europe will be decided by our attitude towards the great churches and other cultural buildings of our heritage standing in our midst. Do we contend with them, ignore them, engage with them or continue to revere them? Do we preserve them?

“Though politicians may imagine that ages are judged on the minutiae of government policy, they are not. They are judged on what they leave behind: most of all on how they treat what the past has handed into their care. Even if today’s disaster was simply the most freakish of accidents, ours would still be the era that lost Notre Dame.”

Pamela Druckerman in “Were the Caretakers of Notre Dame. We Failed.” in the New York Times: “Though most Parisians don’t visit often — and some never do — Notre-Dame is more than just a tourist attraction or a historic monument. It sits in the middle of the city, walking distance from practically everywhere, on the bank of the river that divides the city. Residents might not have fully realized it until Monday, but I think it reassured them to know that at the heart of their highly planned city was someplace entirely non-rational and non-Cartesian. Notre-Dame’s hulking, Gothic presence has long suggested that there is something mysterious and unknowable at the center of it all … In his address to the nation, Mr. Macron described what Parisians are feeling as a ‘tremblement intérieur’ — an internal trembling. That’s an accurate description of our sense of emptiness and loss. There’s also a shared sadness and disappointment that, with the extensive damage, we’ve failed, as a civilization, to be the caretakers of something priceless. A hundred years from now, people will still be talking about the fire of 2019.”

She was taken to task by the inevitable combox harpies. Philistines and utilitarians grumbled about the money. But one woman named “Diane” had a reasonable bone to pick: “‘Notre Dame’s hulking, Gothic presence’? Some buildings hulk, but Notre Dame looks like it’s about to take wing.”

Over at Spinditty, a blogpost about the school of early music that started at Notre Dame.

Perhaps the most witless remarks were those quoted in The Rolling Stone. Take this paragraph: “’The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of ‘the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,’” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.”

Some folks get their joie de vivre in some places, some of us elsewhere. And some of us thought it had plenty of joie de vivre already. I guess it’s what you bring to it. Hey, Notre Dame! Lighten up! (Some ideas below.)

E.J. Dickson continues: “Now that the world has rallied in support of the rebuilding of the cathedral, however, and donations have started pouring in from all over the world, there’s likely to be renewed interest around the cathedral as an emblem of French history and culture.” And, of course, religion.

The Associated Press article except is here. Said Titus Tichera on Facebook: “So if French Catholics want to not be the laughingstock of whoever the hell even cares anymore, they should take a long hard look at this, reported by AP, think things through, and start organizing: ‘The cultural heritage envoy for French President Emmanuel Macron says it is realistic to reopen Notre Dame Cathedral to the public in five years. Following a meeting at the presidential palace about the cathedral’s reconstruction: Macron’s goal is to allow visitors coming for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris to visit Notre Dame. Macron told the meeting that the new spire will hinge on the results of an international architecture competition.’ This is Philistinism of a very high order–I would rate it as high as desecration. One has to admire the drugged air of death on their breath.”

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5 Responses to ““Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, because it’s been rebuilt before,” says medievalist. “We take solace in looking ahead.””

  1. Les Says:

    Thank you for this illuminating and charged post, charged because it encourages and at the same time disturbs. With all due respect, the most horrifying aspect of this whole disaster is the tweet from Pick Rogarth & Baunsnatch: it underscores a rift that seems to be getting worse among us humans (some kind of plague?), in recognizing the importance of Tradition on the one hand, and the hot pursuit of commodification and reification of everything (no sense of scale and hierarchy). Everything’s up for grabs: tradition, creativity and (yes, I’ll say it!) reverence (though keeping in mind that this world is comprised of gray layers between extreme positions on the pendulum swing of zeitgeist). I find this alarming because if this is truly their vision, if it’s not some kind of odd joke, a playful poking at utility and at the expense of Imagination, then civilization, culture and heritage may as well be lost then be so corrupted. To wake up to the true horror of the implications in this tweet, the onion layers of ugliness – well, I can’t do it, not early this early in the morning when I’m still having my first cup of coffee.

    Compare this tweet to the spontaneous singing from the gathering of people (not the public, as Victor Hugo would say) during the fire.

    Well, please tell me the tweet from PR&B is a joke after all. I don’t know if I can deal with this arising of this specter from the depths of the human psyche, and it certainly reveals an image of future world not worth inhabiting – I wonder if the spirits of old N.D. would share this sentiment.

    I will add that Patricio del Real misses the point (maybe he’s joking too?): it’s not that it’s overloaded with meaning but that it embodies mystery, and brings us into question, yes? The experience of reading Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, is in the text, and not the 100 years of criticism trying to unlock its secrets.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for checking in, Les. And yes, the tweet was a parody! I put it on my Facebook page and most of the people replying took it straight up, so you’re not the only one fooled. Maybe a sign of the times that it’s so believable.

  3. Les Says:

    Thank you Dr. Haven.

    I work with the developer community, which is why I freaked out, as I can tell you – no joke- at least some of them are seeing this as the “best possible outcome.”

    So relieved that it is parody.


  4. Jeff S. Says:

    Hey, thanks for the link! Now I just need to put a picture of myself somewhere on the web that isn’t fifteen years out of date.

    I’m not one to praise the efficacy of social media, which is too often a cesspool, but the Notre-Dame fire has turned out to be one of those times when scholars, writers, and informed amateurs provided much better analysis through blogs and social media than did professional journalists and pundits with large platforms and loud voices.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, as always, for contributing to the informed voices, Jeff!